Writing for Platforms Has Sucked the Creativity Out of Your Brain
Here’s the thing about posting content on platforms for views: it’s killing your creativity,
Typically, getting views mean you’re creating valuable work for your audience, whether it’s articles like this one, videos, or Instagram posts.
But one of the symptoms of writing expressly for views is that you begin to cater not for yourself, or for your audience, but for the middle man — the algorithm.
This is true pretty much anywhere you post online. On Instagram, the algorithm wants solid backgrounds and smiling faces. If you’re blogging, that means you’re listening to Google’s SEO. Personally, I’m guilty of crafting articles that I think stand the best chance of going viral by primarily considering what the search engine algorithm wants from writers — listicles, challenging assumptions, titles just shy of clickbait. Only when I’ve ticked those boxes, will I think about my audience’s needs, and finally myself.
From a writer’s perspective, it’s creatively draining.
This morning, as I sat down to do my writing for the week, I drew a complete blank on what to write about. Every fun and exciting idea I had, I shot down in cold blood because I couldn’t see it performing well. Every SEO-friendly idea I had, I couldn’t muster up the personal enthusiasm to develop. I floundered fruitlessly for forty minutes before changing gears altogether.
I did something I’d only done once in my professional writing career: I looked for a prompt.
Writing Challenges Breathe Some Life Into Your Creativity
Back when I was trialling Vocal and News Break, one feature that stood out to me about Vocal was the Challenges. Vocal Challenges, as I learned, are themed storytelling contests. Vocal chooses a theme, either broad or narrow, and offers cash prizes to the winners.
I found the Challenges to be really freeing. I read a prompt and then I could develop that idea any way I wanted. I wasn’t writing to fuel an algorithm. I was writing just for me.
It’s especially interesting to me that Vocal often chooses to partner with brands for these Challenges. It’s a good way to bridge the gap between payment models. News Break’s payment is based on ad revenue. Other blogging platforms use a revenue share model.
By partnering with brands, Vocal gets to be an ad-free platform that pays writers for their work (always a must). The brands don’t feel like intrusive additions to the scene — most sponsored Challenges aren’t thinly veiled ads, as I’d worried, but creative and intriguing prompts.
For example, the Fiskars-sponsored Challenge entitled “Create Your Happiness” only asks that you talk about your creative projects and that you include scissors at some point. For comparison, a non-sponsored past Challenge similarly asked writers to create a fictional story that mentioned a barn owl somewhere.
The ultimate prize money is awarded by judges, not based on how many views it has (though that can help) but rather on how it fits the brief. Vocal’s Challenges don’t have a lot of guidelines, but offer one or two requirements and then let writers go where that prompt leads them.
Writing for a Challenge is an excellent way to get off the treadmill of hunting for views, and focus on your own creativity and imagination. I entered the Boss Mom challenge to write about how my own mom taught me that growing up shouldn’t mean losing the ability to have fun.
It’s a story I know wouldn’t perform well based on SEO, but it gave me a chance to try writing something new and different. It let me write for fun, rather than for the whims of a faceless machine.
On a day when I was struggling to write anything, it was a relief to turn my focus away from views-based performance and craft something new, in a totally different style and structure that I write in nowadays. It was incredibly fun to let loose like that.
Why Challenges Are Necessary to Revitalize Your Writing
Variety is called the spice of life, and it holds true for writing as well. It’s easy for me to slip into the habit of creating something formulaic and rote that will feed an algorithm, instead of fulfilling my passion for actually writing.
When that happens, I do both myself and my audience a disservice. I started my full-time freelance writing career not because I think it’s a way to make money fast (it’s not) or because it’s easier than any of my old 9-to-5 jobs (it isn’t) but because writing is what I truly, deeply love. But because I depend on views for so much of my income, I fall into the trap of only creating engineered and optimized content. And that in turn hurts my love of writing, which is what fuels my career and my income.
It’s a dreadful negative feedback loop. I got out of it by introducing a Challenge to my writing. Challenges with simple prompts can give you a reason to write something new, unusual, and out of the ordinary. It works for three crucial reasons.
- Wide open field. The Challenges are very much open to interpretation. I checked out some previous Challenges, like the Moleskine-sponsored Challenge in which writers were asked to create a fictional story of coming into an unexpected $20,000 and include a little black book. The winners ranged from authoring a moving essay about childhood loss and counting to three, to a story about sorcery in apple orchards, to one about age, memory loss, and family. The broadness of the prompt provided a lot of room for interpretation.
- A few narrow constraints. On the flip side, being presented with a blank page is the leading cause of Writer’s Block. By giving writers very few guidelines, writers get their creative gears churning.
- Incentive to experiment. I’ll be honest, I don’t write about my family a whole lot because I don’t think my audience cares. I was brand new to the challenges of accurately depicting my mom, telling anecdotes about my childhood, and even knowing when to include personal videos in the article. But thanks to the prize money and the Challenge setting, I was excited to try and learn.
Writing Challenges wouldn’t be enough for me to maintain my entire writing career, but they’re an excellent way to alleviate the doldrums I sometimes fall into from writing too much algo-friendly content. The Boss Mom Challenge inspired me to write about something totally different, opening up the creative side of my brain.
It’s a great addition to my typical routine, and I recommend them to any other writer who wants to explore a new avenue of writing.